PRINT April 2013


Shane Carruth‘s Upstream Color

Shane Carruth, Upstream Color, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 96 minutes. Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Shane Carruth).

SOME MOVIES ARE SO SENSORIALLY and emotionally resonant that when one leaves the theater, the on-screen world seems to persist, skewing one’s relationship to sights and sounds, space and time. After I saw Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, I felt as if I had acquired a crucial secret of which passersby, crowding against me in rush-hour Times Square or glimpsed at a distance through subway windows, were pitifully unaware. They didn’t know how porous our bodies and psyches are, how easy it would be for another person—or the state, or the culture—to evacuate what you think of as yourself, leaving you vulnerable to the unimaginable. For example, you could discover that a surgery, of which you have no memory, has made it impossible for you to carry a child to term. Nevertheless, you might be able to experience the bliss of the maternal dyad by cuddling a piglet who shares your newly modified DNA and with whom, it turns out, you have a unique psychosymbiotic bond.

Upstream Color debuted this past January at Sundance, nine years after Carruth’s first feature, Primer, won the festival’s grand prize and almost immediately achieved cult status among fans of brainy science fiction. Primer was a one-man-garage-band movie about two engineers who inadvertently build a time machine and then have to deal with the ethical dilemmas their knowledge of the future brings. Carruth, originally a mathematician who briefly worked as a software engineer, taught himself filmmaking using 35-mm slide film to storyboard every shot in Primer. Thus equipped, he controlled every aspect of the production: He produced, directed, scripted, designed, edited, scored, and costarred. His credits on Upstream Color are similarly encompassing, although here he takes the cinematography credit strangely omitted in Primer and shares the editing credit with David Lowery.

During the nine years between the two movies, Carruth tried to develop a $20 million sci-fi picture in Hollywood. When it came to naught, he returned to the low-budget independent mode with a more extensive knowledge of mainstream movie genres available for sabotage. Upstream Color samples familiar tropes of the thriller, the romance, and the psychodrama, placing them within an allegorical science-fiction narrative edited as if by Maya Deren. (She once remarked that Meshes of the Afternoon [1943] was too condensed to fully express its meaning.) As unsettling in form as the mysterious, clandestine, and ultimately unexplained medical procedures to which the movie’s central characters, Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Carruth), are subjected, Upstream Color probably won’t screen at a mall near you, although visually and aurally it is far more stunning than any movie you are likely to see there, comparable in its combination of the visceral and the hypnotic to David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996).

There are several ways one could interpret the fragmented story line. Indeed, the movie gives the conditional phase “could be” a certain emphasis, echoing Christopher Knowles’s haunting texts for Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach. When Kris and Jeff, on an outing to the country during a rare happy moment in their otherwise depressive romance, try to identify a flock of birds by repeating to each other, “They could be starlings,” “They could be starlings,” you can hear in the rhythms of their speech Knowles’s darting, associative conjectures: “It could be Franky it could be very fresh and cleann. So it could be / thos / e ones. So if / You cash the bank of world traveler from 10 months ago.”

And oddly enough, Kris’s bank account was cashed out roughly a year before she and Jeff met. Early in Upstream Color, Kris is kidnapped by the “Thief” (Thiago Martins), who forces her to ingest parasitic worms, which narcotize her sufficiently for him to make off with all her money and investments. Soon after, she is delivered to the “Sampler” (Andrew Sensenig), who transfuses the parasites we see moving beneath her skin into a pig (these “experiments” are all the more grisly for their use of jury-rigged laboratory devices). The worming and deworming procedures leave her operating system, as it were, partially erased. In a paranoid, borderline autistic state, she meets Jeff, whose finances and identity seem to have been similarly evacuated. Their attempts at bonding evoke memory fragments and also a shared sense that they are being controlled by outside forces. It might be helpful to know that upstream color is a biopharmaceutical term for impurities present early on in the manufacturing process that can have unintended, negative ramifications down the line.

The many possible interpretations of the story turn out to be so many textual culs-de-sac, as narrative is deployed not as an end in itself but merely as an armature for evoking the psyche and body under attack. The movie places us in terrifying and exhilarating proximity to something we cannot fully grasp and that is more visceral than ideological. Shooting digitally, Carruth combined a CinemaScope ratio with an extremely shallow depth of field, so that the point of focus in each composition seems like a close-up even when it’s not. The effect is as intimate as looking at your own face in a mirror, if only what you saw there were as gloriously beautiful as every image in this movie, even those that arouse disgust. The ambient audio track—music combined with precisely amplified concrete sound—is similarly enveloping, the crescendos of synthesized organs and bells and the simultaneously ascending and descending motifs suggesting the possibility of transcendence through destruction. And that is about as close as we may get to a central metaphor in this singular, intriguingly elusive film.

Upstream Color opens at the IFC Center in New York on April 5 and in select cities in North America beginning April 12.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.